How Billie Jean King revolutionised tennis
The exploits of the Original 9, led by Billie Jean, ensured women players would transcend the sport
Without the Original 9 blazing the trail 47 years ago, the world of sports would look very different today.
In September 1970, the nine players led by Billie Jean King, founder of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), signed US$1 (S$1.42) contracts with World Tennis publisher Gladys Heldman to compete in a new women's tour.
What they achieved did not just change women's tennis, but revolutionised the sports industry and, today, the WTA continues to be among the leading authorities in the global sports arena.
King's courage to break down barriers during her time definitely shone the spotlight on the women's game and paved the way for the future of women's tennis.
The "Battle of the Sexes" match against Bobby Riggs set new records back then in terms of live audiences and television viewership, with more than 30,000 fans packed into the Houston Astrodome and an estimated 90 million people watching it on television.
The momentous event definitely raised discussions and debate on gender equality, a cause that King fought fiercely for and succeeded in.
One of my favourite quotes by her is "Pressure is a privilege" - so much was on the line for King to agree to the match but she knew that she had to agree and, on top of that, win, in order to earn respect not just for herself, but also for all women.
Tennis is still the only sport in the world with equal prize money for men and women and, this season, the players are competing for a record US$139 million (S$197m). This exists only because King and the Original 9 had the foresight and valour to fight for equality.
The WTA owes its success today largely to King's conviction, bravery and dedication to bring to light what was before a topic that was swept under the rug or dismissed by the male-dominated sports industry.
Another one of my favourite quotes by King that speaks of this best is: "We've come a long way baby!".
As exemplified by King, the influence and outreach of WTA players transcend sport.
On the annual Forbes list for the world's highest-paid female athletes, eight out of the top 10 last year were tennis players.
In 2016, 408 million fans followed the WTA on television and digital channels.
Coming off International Women's Day this week, I am proud to be part of an organisation that was built upon the premise of equality and the empowerment of women.
I feel indebted to King and, consequently, a personal responsibility to help other young girls and boys achieve their goals.
ROAD TO SINGAPORE(Top 8)
1. Serena Williams (US) 2,030pts
2. Elina Svitolina (Ukr) 1,525
3. Karolina Pliskova (Cze) 1,371
4. Venus Williams (US) 1,331
5. Caroline Wozniacki (Den) 1,180
6. Johanna Konta (Bri) 1,010
7. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (Cro) 933
8. Coco Vandeweghe (US) 836.
Undoubtedly, off-court publicity by WTA players has helped attract attention beyond just tennis fans.
Social media has brought fans closer to the players and, in the past few weeks, the WTA players have shown how they have leveraged on these platforms to make themselves more accessible.
Serena Williams is a prime example of how the influence of players has now transcended the sport itself.
In addition to her record-breaking feat of 23 Grand Slam titles, Williams has appeared in Beyonce's music video, shown her eponymous clothing line at New York Fashion Week and her philanthropic efforts include serving as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and building schools in Africa.
She has become a role model and her achievements both on and off the court have inspired people to pursue their dreams.
The WTA itself is an international organisation represented by 2,500 players from over 100 countries.
As with any business, the mantra of thinking global and acting local also applies to its strategy.
While the values and vision of the organisation remain constant, how it is communicated to different target audiences varies. With offices in the United States, the UK, China and Singapore, the WTA applies its overall global strategy by tailoring the marketing and communications plan to each market.
For example, WeChat is the leading social media platform in China where Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are not available, so our colleagues in the Beijing team work to adapt and translate content specifically for this platform.
The players themselves also contribute a large part to the global marketing of women's tennis.
In the WTA Finals last year, we saw an increase in the number of visitors from Germany to Singapore to support their heroine and newly crowned world No. 1, Angelique Kerber.
It is an honour to be part of the legacy we are building here. Being able to inspire the next generation of talent through various opportunities is something I hold very close to my heart.
Within the Asia-Pacific region, the WTA Future Stars initiative has helped to promote the WTA Finals and also the sport among the next generation of talent.
Last year, 18 countries held their own Junior "Road to Singapore" qualifications to select their best U-14 and U-16 players to compete for the crown on the very same court that WTA Finals matches are played.
Tennis clinics are also held in the region by the WTA to put rackets in the hands of young children to empower them to live a better life through sports, and inspire them to achieve their goals. Each time I see a child with a racket in hand and a smile on his or her face, I know that we are doing something special.
The "Road to Singapore" has been one of the most successful year-long promotional campaigns and has garnered more than US$500m worth of global media coverage for Singapore and the WTA Finals since the inaugural event in 2014.
I'm excited about what's ahead. The campaign not only shines the global spotlight on the host, but also engages fans throughout the season to keep an eye on where their favourite players stand on the "Road to Singapore" leaderboard.
I feel truly privileged to be part of the WTA Finals - a celebration of the dedication, diligence and passion of these incredible world-class athletes on their year-long Road to Singapore journey.
Melissa Pine is the vice-president of WTA Asia-Pacific and the tournament director of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global. She is also a former NCAA player at Washington State University and served as assistant coach of the team post-graduation. To find out more about the WTA Finals, visit www.wtafinals.com
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